When not dabbling in treatises, Hippocrates found time to write: ‘Nature itself is the best physician’. This was a prescription I desperately sought. Four days before arriving in Dominica – the East Caribbean’s self-styled ‘Nature Island’ – my sister was buried after a Sisyphean struggle against cancer. I arrived in the Caribbean, grief-stricken and emotionally drained.
To contextualise Dominica’s restorative qualities, it’s necessary to point out it is unlike any other Caribbean island. I wasn’t seeking recuperation by parking myself on a dreamy beach on a drip-feed of rum-punch, but instead craved the soul-rejoicing uplift nature can offer.
With few serviceable beaches, Dominica’s currency is the outdoors – hiking, diving, whale-watching, and wellness. Its gravity-defying tropical forests fall away from a central mountainous spine where sulphurous hot springs bubble away despite the island’s waning volcanicity with the Alka-Seltzer of time. Its volcanoes and deep forests remind me of Costa Rica, without the rampant biodiversity – although the islanders talk fondly of their endemic ‘mountain chicken’, which is actually a frog and apparently quite tasty.
Playing to its strengths Dominica recently launched its ‘Safe in Nature’ program that not only allows outdoors activities to be pursued within a quarantine bubble but also offers a robust defence against visitors importing the virus to an island that has carefully shielded its citizens. To date, Dominica has recorded 88 cases, and no deaths.
My ‘Safe in Nature’ experience begins at Dominica’s Douglas-Charles Airport. I arrive with a negative PCR test obtained in London 72 hours before to be greeted by a nurse wearing PPE as transparent as a chiffon negligée, who directs me to undertake a Rapid Diagnostic Test. After a negative result is realised in 25 minutes, I meet my designated driver/guide, Osmond ‘Ossie’ Cadette, who takes me to my certified accommodation, Citrus Creek Plantation, on the south-eastern coast.
I am required to quarantine for five days before taking another PCR test. I’m not permitted to leave Citrus Creek by myself, but with Ossie I can undertake certified outdoors activities so long as I avoid mingling with Dominicans.
“After the initial lockdown we looked for ways to reopen Dominica. The economy here remains weak since Hurricane Maria in 2017,” says Frenchman, Hervé Nizard, owner of Citrus Creek’s 11 cottages in the sheltered Taberi River Valley, a former banana plantation. Hurricane Maria, he tells me, damaged 90% of the island’s housing and claimed 65 lives.
My reboot from the personal hurricane that recently ripped through my life begins in Ylang-Ylang cottage. I settle in, barefoot, decamping to a private veranda, free of mosquitos, the white noise roar of the river, soothing, as are blue-headed hummingbirds flickering around rouge-red hibiscus flowers. I’m brought homemade bread each day, and inexhaustible passionfruit, and watch avaricious geckos devouring insects at night like there’s no tomorrow.
Yet there is a tomorrow. Life carries on. Especially around 7pm when Hervé brings meals to my cottage. Citrus Creek’s ethos is self-sufficiency through homegrown produce from their 20 acres. He calculates 90% per cent of my first meal, gyoza dumplings and sweet-potato rösti with devilish orange chilies, emanates in situ.
Then there’s Ossie, a Jack-the-lad character possessing a zest for life. He makes me laugh; his energy infectious. We careen around the island’s unceasing hairpins through small wooden-house communities, some still hurricane-damaged, and Ossie bellows greetings to anybody who might listen in indecipherable Dominican patois, perhaps even to old flames as his five kids, he tells me, are born of an assortment of mothers.
Dominica’s hiking is wild and challenging, the terrain is steep, the footpaths often overgrown. One morning we follow a mulled wine of a trail, aromatic with cinnamon and nutmeg shrubs, to Glassy Point, where a scenic apron of lava juts into the lapis-blue Atlantic. We wade waist deep up the White River to Victoria Falls, its flow slithering down a rockface in transparent sheafs, like snow shearing from a melting cornice. Another waterfall, Jacko, recalls a ‘maroon’, an escaped plantation slave, who died in 1824 leading a rebellion against the British who subjugated Dominica.
Among the crops the British planted is cocoa, still growing at Pointe Baptiste Estate, known locally as the ‘chocolate factory’ although currently lacking wonga rather than Wonka as visitors have dried up.
Happily, the tempering machine hasn’t. After chocolatier Marina explains how the estate was established in the 1930s by the Napiers from London, and now run by the grandson, I eagerly sample their bean-to-bar produce, flavoured with ginger, lemongrass, mint, and hot pepper. Another uplift, endorphins. Life is feeling better.
If Citrus Creek is about pausing, stepping off a conveyance of sadness I’d been powerless to affect, my remaining days in Dominica begins a positive restoration of the self. ‘Safe in Nature’ rules permit me to switch to another designated quarantine property by a direct private transfer so I cross to Jungle Bay on the west coast, which promises ‘adventure wellness’.
Back in 2015, Hurricane Erica wrecked the original Jungle Bay, one of Dominica’s most exclusive resorts. Its owner, Sam Raphael, made his money in the US Virgin Islands, and is rebuilding Jungle Bay above a sea-cliff on a former lime plantation near Soufriere village. The first phase of the new development is 30 sea-facing villas, although during my stay only five are occupied, visitors remaining scarcer than mountain chickens.
Sam believes post-coronavirus travel will see Dominica’s stock rise. “People weary from coronavirus will be looking at our outdoors with its space and nature, as somewhere to feel safe”.
My villa is large and directly overlooking the Caribbean. My veranda doors slung open, sea breezes tempering the heat, frigatebirds on the horizon spiralling above flimsy-looking sails of yachts borne on the winds between Guadalupe and Martinique.
Again, I’m allowed excursions, this time with Jungle Bay guide, Weefers ‘Weefee’ Jules. We take a sublime forest walk eating wild guava along old plantation trails around Gallion and end in Soufriere, a picturesque little coastal town wedged between Cancerian pincers of lava flow. “When Hurricane Maria struck, we moved the elderly into our church here, but a window blew out. We boarded it up by stacking the heavy church pews,” he remembers.
Upon returning, I drop a few gears to try restorative yoga with the hotel’s Swiss teacher, Nancy. “Let the clouds drift over your body and open your mind,” she intones, as I lie prone in Shavasana pose. My de-stressing then transfers to their spa where I have daily massages to help subside the tension in my shoulders that had been causing barnstorming headaches. One of the therapists is an engaging herbalist called Dafrica, who grew up on an organic farm. Her name, she says, came courtesy of a father who loved Africa and smoked too much pot.
I confide in her the source of my stress. “You must take lime tea for grieving, it will release tension and help overcome mental pain,” she says. She throws in soursop leaves, a Dominican remedy for sleeplessness.
After spending so much of this trip in the outdoors, I wasn’t going to lose any sleep about failing my PCR swab-test taken on my fifth day, in Roseau, the island’s diminutive capital. Indeed, my result returned negative 24 hours later, just after a fruitless morning at sea seeking sperm whales in what proved, as the boat-skipper described, ‘looking for a needle in a haystack’. My first act upon quarantine release is a cold Kabuli beer at Weefee’s bar, a blood-red shipping container, on the Soufriere seafront.
Just one beer, mind, as on my last afternoon I snorkel off Champagne Beach. Electric rays shuffle into the sand for camouflage and by a reef of tubular yellow sponges, something mystical catches my eye. Heated underwater columns form bubble droplets streaming vertically from the lava substrate, like the fizz of champagne.
I float in their warmth in contemplation. My sister, Marianne loved champagne. She was the life and soul of a party and adored sunshine and beaches. After one week, Dominica’s wholesome nurturing nature had helped my grief transition from viewing her through a tearful lens of despair to memories of the joys she brought to my life.
Overseas holidays are not currently permitted for most UK residents, but Dominica remains open to UK arrivals who have a PCR swab test with a negative result taken up to 72 hours before arrival. Flights via Barbados cost from £566 with British Airways (www.ba.com) and interCaribbean Airways (www.intercaribbean.com).
Citrus Creek Plantation (citruscreekplantation.com) cottages from £107 per night for a cottage, £18 per meal, and activities cost extra.
Jungle Bay (https://junglebaydominica.com) from £265 per night including meals, daily spa treatment, some activities, and yoga.
Whale-watching is offered by Dive Dominica (divedominica.com) from £51 per person. Tours every Sunday.
Discover Dominica: https://discoverdominica.com/en/home.
Travel advisory information: https://discoverdominica.com/travel-advisory-for-dominica.
Coronavirus Test UK: https://www.c19testing.co.uk/fortravel; 24-hour service; £123 per kit.